Shaun Tan’s unusual sculptural reproductions of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales

Shaun Tan, The Singing Bones. Foreword by Philip Pullman

Published by Allen&Unwin, 2015, 192p

Fairy tales are eternal. A consistent proof is the translation of the Grimm’s tales into one hundred and sixty languages and dialects, as Jack Zipes says in his introduction for The Singing Bones. Featuring folkloric fantasy, fairy tales bring marvels into people’s lives and offer spectacular connections with the ancestors.

Shaun Tan is born and lives in Australia but he dared to engage with the European folklore and explore the Grimm’s tales in an unusual artistic manner.

Like many children I knew the stories of the Brothers Grimm primarily as visual images… Scenes of green forests, snow, mountains and castles were all wonderfully exotic, but could not have been further from my childhood reality, growing up along the semi-arid coastal plain of Western Australia. The Brothers Grimm stood for escapist fantasy, more delight than darkness, especially in these more sanitized and decorative versions. It’s only as an adult that I’ve really come to appreciate these tales for their complexity, ambiguity and endurance. (Shaun Tan, Afterword)

The volume is a collection of 75 Grimm’s tales reduced to short essential excerpts and accompanied by amazing sculptured figurines. More than the texts it is the visual language that really speaks in this book. Shaun Tan’s figurines take the characters out of the context and reduce them to elementary features. We easily identify Rapunzel by her long golden hair, the wolf, the goat and her kids, the Bremen musicians or the fisherman from The Fisherman and his wife.

shaun tan, the fisherman and his wife

It is a change in the style of the previous representations for the Grimm’s tales but The Singing Bones is definitely an art album. Princesses, wicked stepmothers or stepsisters, greedy and lazy women, witches, kings and the devil himself are transformed into tiny fascinating sculptures made of clay, inspired by Inuit art and pre-Columbian figurines. The photographs of the sculptures through a play of light and shadow highlight even more their colors, textures and features.

The title of the volume comes from one of the stories. Two brothers accept the king’s challenge to kill a dangerous boar. The little brother succeeds in killing the beast but is killed himself by his envious brother who marries afterwards the king’s daughter. Many years later a bone of the dead brother is discovered by a shepherd and turned into a horn that sings the story of the betrayal. The king will hear the song and the murderer is drowned. Fairy tales are intriguing; sometimes they might be weird and scary but children like the element of surprise and also the punishment of the negative characters. The horn tells the story of the betrayal and the criminal is sentenced. The moral elements blend with fantastic symbols defining practically the human condition.

At the back of the book there are summaries for all the seventy five fairy tales.

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